In the rush to offer analysis facts are too often neglected
The Mail & Guardian has always had a reputation for analysis and strong investigative and political reporting, perhaps one of the reasons why it has fared comparatively better than other newspapers, which have experienced a dramatic decline in readership.
This kind of offering is often suggested as the solution for newspaper journalism, struggling to adapt to a multimedia world in which breaking news stories like the Boston Marathon bombing or the death of model Reeva Steenkamp become public knowledge first through social media. The speed with which accounts and pictures of events of this kind spread around the world outstrips even the oldest and previously quickest of media, radio.
Readers of the M&G can be reasonably sure that they will not get a mash-up of the week's stories in the paper on a Friday, but new stories, which often succeed in driving the broader news agenda.
Breaking new ground journalistically is rewarding, but carries additional challenges. Stories of this kind need to work harder to persuade readers they are solid.
Readers are, in any event, I think, becoming more critical. The journalism of assertion used to be easier to get away with, in which newspapers essentially told readers to believe a story simply because the writer said so.
In recognition of this shift, the M&G code sets the bar high. "We will show readers the chain of evidence we have," it promises.
There is a related issue in the handling of analytical writing, also an area of strength for the newspaper. It has often been good at extracting trends and the meaning of apparently disparate events and facts.
Always, though, the factual basis for the analysis and commentary needs to be clearly established.
Of late, I have read too many stories in the paper that do not work hard enough to persuade me as the reader that the central facts are established.
In the investigative field, reports sometimes present a bewildering thicket of miniscule detail, while the central facts are given insufficient attention. The former public editor of the Star in Nairobi, Karen Rothmyer, refers to there being too many trees and no forest.
I also wonder sometimes how far the claim of linkage can be stretched. Often, reporting points out a link between people, companies and the like, and obviously these are often important, but indirect. But, sometimes, the link seems to consist of a company's founder's second cousin's former schoolfriend, who once installed a kitchen in the government official's niece's holiday home. Or worse. I think my attention evaporates at about the second cousin, even if there is a graphic.
It is not just about these kinds of connections being hard to follow, but that there is actually a point where they no longer prove anything. Are all human beings not supposed to be connected to all others at something like seven removes?
An analytical approach has found its way into articles closer to the front of the newspaper, where readers usually expect more factual reporting. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it increases the need to be very persuasive in establishing the fundamental facts, particularly when they are new.
I thought that stories like last week's front-page lead report, for instance, moved too quickly to the big-picture issue of conflict around Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi without having established clearly enough the facts around various corruption inquiries into union leaders. Evidence for the key factual basis of the story was simply thin.
When I have asked questions about these kinds of stories I have sometimes been told by editorial staff that reporters have more evidence, but that it cannot be published for such as various reasons, like that it might jeopardise the source.
That argument expects readers simply to accept a story on trust, giving up on the principle that the paper needs to persuade them it is valid. Of course, sometimes information cannot be used, but the story still needs to be visibly substantial. Sometimes there is just not enough publishable evidence for the story to be used. It is profoundly
unsatisfactory to be presented with stories that merely hint darkly at some skullduggery.
I have also been told that stories of this kind are not intended to be definitive, but merely sketch an outline, a suggestion of something interesting. That is fair enough, but then the tone and presentation need to be very clear on the limitations of what is being suggested.
This can also be a dangerous path, since it is so easy to read too much into tea leaves left in the bottom of a cup. Sometimes they are just tea leaves.
The brave new world of newspapering needs a whole new set of skills to compete with online competitors and the M&G has shown its ability to deploy traditional strengths alongside innovation to meet these challenges.
It is critical that the oldest journalistic technique not be neglected: the careful and persuasive deployment of facts.
The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message